Monday, November 18, 2013

The Most Valuable Skill

Outcomes are easy to visualize. Process, less so.

When my parents moved into the house I mostly grew up in (I was two), my mother apparently said "first thing we do is change this kitchen around," which they did 20 years later.

Readers of this blog will remember that in 2007 I wrote an AWFUL LOT about fixing the drainage around our foundation, which we did in 2013.

I know how the launch party for my first novel goes. You are invited.

Yesterday men came and ground our road up into pebbles, then laid the pebbles back down and shaved and graded them and rolled them flat in preparation for laying down new blacktop. (This was to replace the dug-up roadway where the sewer and drainage lines had been installed back in January and February.)

(Yeah, we had the drainage project done in January and February. When it started, it was going to be a ten-day job—because outcomes are easy to visualize—and the ten-day forecast was for temperatures in the 40s. It wasn't a ten-day job. Temperatures were not in the 40s.)

One night a few years ago, around New Year's Day, a logical, disciplined woman who lives with me and I went out for a date and took a notebook and drew a timeline of our lives. Things like college dates, anniversaries, milestone birthdays, retirement &c. (There was an asterisk at the bottom indicating that all future events were speculative and conditional.) Since then each year we've collaborated on a big brown sheet of craft paper capturing all the stuff we want to pay attention to that year. Outcomes, mostly.

But what I love is what happens on that paper throughout the year. It gets rolled up and put on top of the washing machine in the alcove in the front room (we call it the parlor, because fancy). It gets unrolled, usually by me, okay, during stressful moments, just to make sure we're on track. We amend it. Check things off. X out stuff we don't care about anymore, or that we've written off as eggnog-driven delusions. Sometimes we write in interim steps toward a goal. We see the year unscroll. Process.

The thing I'm trying to show myself, when I pause, is that even the goals are process. Late tonight, feeling an urge, I sat down to write something and faced the usual wall of dull facts staring at me about blogging: it's not important; it's not advancing your career; it's not your best work; it's not your novel; your big revelations were captured in English in the early 1800s and by the ancient Greeks before that and by you in 2008; &c.

But, outcomes. The first thing we do is change this kitchen around. Someday I'm going to get that water problem fixed. Gonna publish that book. You can't do an outcome. You can only plug away. That's where I think I meant to be going with this. An easy message that had to be approached obliquely, worried at, whittled down to, before it could be reached: Plugging away is the most valuable skill. I've highlighted it for the kids. Outcomes don't even matter, really, when you plug away.

Said all this before, of course. Nothing new here. Except, in a day or two, someone's going to repave my road. And after, I'll unroll the big sheet of craft paper labeled 2013 and I'll check off "repave." I'll tweak a scene in that manuscript. I'll look back at the sheet and see that "insulation" is next and I'll look at the life timeline and I'll see we're right where we hoped we'd be: alive. Doing things. Plugging away.

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